“We’ve restructured your job and structured you out of it,” Louis said quickly, as though this thought were all one word.
Immediately, I felt the floor drop and ceiling soar, while I, not tethered to either, floated between. I was surprised, though I’d foreseen this bad news; I‘d brought an empty brown duffel bag to work that Friday rather than my usual Louis Vuitton purse. I had been telling my mother and coworkers for weeks, as I snooped while sorting Louis’ emails, that I was going to be let go.
Still, I felt side-swiped. “Why?” I choked.
“We need someone more senior to manage Michelle and the guys in the back,” he explained. This was an office manager job, one I was completely qualified for and had, in essence, already been doing. “I’ve been dreading this all week,” he continued. “Normally when I let someone go I enjoy it, but this is heartbreaking. You’re such a sweetheart.”
Have we ever had a conversation lasting more than two minutes? He handed me a large white envelope. “There is close to $5,000 in here, more than you should get—it’ll cover you for awhile.”
When I later tore open the envelope, my severance package, which included my salary and vacation wages, totaled only $3,400. Really, had Louis rounded this up to $5K? I was struggling to make rent and the absence of the promised additional $1,600 was devastating.
Finished, Louis scurried off. I gathered the pictures of my family, pens and post-it notes that littered my desktop, thankful no one could see my tears. I flushed crimson as I wondered who knew about this. That would explain why the partners of the architectural firm I’d worked at for a year hadn’t been making eye contact. And why lately our intimate banter had slowed. I felt exposed and vulnerable, fearing my past had caught up with me.
Previously, I worked in the finance industry, for my father’s successful business. At 23, I had been hired as his secretary and by the time I was 25 my salary reached six figures. I never attended college as I saw no need to further my education when I was already making such good money. My dad and an associate formed a partnership and at 27 I became the youngest and first female Director of Financial Services for his large privately held tax firm. Bicoastal, I managed a team of registered reps that had more years of experience than I had years of life.
I rented a luxury apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village in Manhattan along with a stunning flat in an opulent community in San Diego and I jetsetted constantly between the two. In New York, I enjoyed dining excursions, picking up the entire tab with a flourish no matter who was my company. I spent weekends shopping, spending thousands whilst treating my dates and shopkeepers as my personal servants. I took a car service and taxis everywhere and the few times I took the subway, I was mortified that someone would see me descending into the bowels of the city with the commoners.
I had personal shoppers calling when new items arrived in their shops and I had them on speed dial. Valet attendants knew me, keeping my SUV idling by the curb rather than parking it in the lot. I acquired long blond hair extensions costing thousands of dollars while getting my pricey platinum highlights redone every three weeks. Breast implants furthered the illusion as I spent $10,000 on colossal pillows of silicone which I later had replaced with a smaller, simply huge, saline pair. Frequent shopping trips made me Santa Claus to my girlfriends, who benefited from my carelessness with jewelry, purses, clothes and furniture. I became a frequent user of Adderall interspersed with cocaine, rarely sleeping more than three hours per night. My days were spent recovering with spa treatments and visits to my personal trainer. Corresponding with my offices via BlackBerry, I had meetings wherever I could fit them in. During a visit to the hair salon to replace my extensions, an eight-hour process, I had back-to-back meetings prompting one patron to ask her stylist if I was a celebrity.
I grew more self-absorbed, obnoxious and difficult, calling my assistants at all hours demanding that they hire maids for my apartments, locate yoga studios, buy furniture or gas my car while changing the tires. One assistant cried while I lambasted him when a truck moving furniture between my NYC and SoCal apartments was delayed due to bad weather. Visiting my offices, I breezed by support staff as if nonexistent, addressing them only if I needed a copy or a cup of coffee. Friends, coworkers, and family members were subject to my frequent, irrational outbursts. I threw epic temper tantrums resulting in broken glass, ripped documents and torn hair extensions.
I went through four BlackBerries a year and grew adept at hurling them so dramatically that they exploded in a shower of shrapnel. During one such outburst, I felt that I could do a better job if I started my own firm, so I quit.
I sold my furniture and moved east. Unable to rely on prior connections due to burned bridges, I had to take this job as an executive assistant at an architecture firm, which eventually led to me being fired. Still, I was happy for it. My job search had been a thoroughly humiliating experience. Despite the level of my prior position, without my family connections, my resume was lacking. I was relegated to filling out job applications in dirty waiting rooms of temp agencies. I took typing and Excel tests repeatedly to prove that I was capable of skills I had mastered 10 years before. I sat in many dust-filled offices being interviewed in tones of condescension and subsequently found to be overqualified for the position.
My money slowly melted away, and with no prospects, I was forced to move from my two bedroom in Manhattan to my boyfriend’s humble Brooklyn dwelling that smelled of mothballs and cigarettes. He was an architect at the firm and my predicament left me in need of help. I tried to sell my flashy belongings on eBay and received no bids but several claims refuting their authenticity. I quit taking the addictive substances and reflected on my prior behavior with horror.
My weight ballooned as I no longer was on speed and could not afford a trainer. My expensive garments grew tattered from stuffing my now size-10 frame into my old size-4 clothes. I used what was left of my severance for stretch pants and sweaters from the dollar store.
At age 30, shortly after being let go from the architecture firm, I took a job as a receptionist at a SoHo fashion house. Now I am surrounded by young girls who talk down to me, as I had to my subordinates a few years before. My employers have no knowledge of my past accomplishments. I redirect phone calls, make coffee, unpack supply boxes and have finally been deemed worthy of ordering shipping supplies. As demeaning as my job is, I am lucky to be employed. My father’s business was a casualty of the recession, which left me nowhere to turn but inward.
Mistreating coworkers, wasting money on designer purses, and vanities like hair salons and spas are far in my past. I have taken out my extensions and admitted that I’m a brunette, though my breast implants serve as a constant reminder of the charade I once lived. I sometimes wonder if it was ever real and am beginning to see how far it is I have fallen. But it brought me to a good place. I am now in school, trying to achieve at 30 that which my classmates are doing at 20.
My boyfriend and I have suffered through the recession. He has been out of work for close to two years. Every cent I earn goes towards my tuition and we exist on the unemployment checks Alex receives weekly. I feel like I am drowning most of the time and money worries keep me up at night. I try and stay positive and hope to regain stability, but I know that I will never have the kind of money I used to have again. I won’t feel the opulence that I took for granted when I was far too young to appreciate all I had. I battle with a sense of entitlement and flashes of my old behavior occur now and again, but they do no one any good as I struggle to make a $300 rent payment and get groceries. “Oh how the mighty have fallen” does not even begin to cover it.
And yet, on this side of things, I have become a much better person.